July 26, 2005
Tour de France - Final Wrap
By:  David Balkin
PatsFans.com Fan Columnist

July 25, 2005—Lance rules. What this incredible athlete and human being has accomplished over the course of his 33 years transcends believability. Beating cancer will remain an inspiration to untold millions worldwide and his foundation’s great works will save countless lives.

His athletic achievement stands unparalleled. In a 3 week event where anything can happen and generally does, Lance went through the last seven years relatively unscathed. There were however some random, heart stopping moments that would have finished a lesser man.

As if a tribute to random, on this final stage three of his team members went down in front of him on roads turned exceptionally greasy by the first rain in 15 days. Lance next in line remained upright avoiding potentially disastrous consequences as he has done throughout his reign; he personifies the adage that good luck follows those who make their own.

For those following this series there’s a bit of housekeeping to get out of the way. Credit Agricole’s Thor Hushovd won the coveted green jersey points competition for the most consistent rider finishing 7th in this stage and for the record, 116th overall. The two other sprinters that had a chance to take it away, Stuart O’Grady and Robbie McEwen, finished just ahead of Hushovd on this stage but could not gain enough points. They finished 77th and 134th overall. These men had to search their souls to get over the high mountains with something left. If the TDF didn’t offer this competition, sprinters would find something—anything else to do in July.

Discovery’s Yaroslav Popovych won the white jersey as best young rider finishing 12th overall. That competition is for riders 25 and under. For most pro athletes 25 is prime time and not old but not exactly a spring chicken. Becoming a force in stage racing takes time and even at 33 Lance may joke about being an old man but the next couple of years is still his time if he wanted more.

Speaking of chicken, CSC’s Michael Rasmussen “the chicken” won the king of the mountains competition. Poultry can’t fly although this guy did some of that in the time trial sailing over the handlebars with alarming regularity. He dropped from 3rd and the podium to 7th overall. Not a good thing and something he’ll have to work on. Meanwhile, after three spontaneous flights that cost him huge time, he still had a better time than half the field. At 31 this guy’s the real deal and he’ll be back better than ever.

More loose ends: T-Mobile’s Alexandre Vinokourov won the final stage and an intermediate sprint along the way to snatch 5th place away from American rider Levi Leipheimer. Vino was by far the most exciting rider to watch even though Oscar Pereiro was awarded the prize as most combative rider. I don’t know how that’s scored and I don’t care, I just know what I saw. Vino never gave up, always attacked and didn’t get the support from his team he deserved.

T-Mobile won the official team competition that’s only valued by advertising types who will use it to talk of unity or something equally warm and fuzzy. That’s a joke as T-Mobile never got its act together. They couldn’t figure out which of their stars to support. It was a team with too many egos and not enough management. If George Steinbrenner was the boss, its manager Walter Goodefrot would have been fired halfway through the race.

What’s next for Lance? When asked immediately after the final stage Lance’s first answer took a moment of thought before he said in all seriousness, “drink a few beers.” For the first time in 15 years he’ll have more than one and won’t feel guilty.

There’s a conversation reported on last year in one of the cycling journals that defines Lance’s single mindedness. Brit David Millar, his good friend and a great but flawed rider, (suspended for a year for failing a drug test) called Lance’s cell phone during the winter off season. Lance told him he was 5 hours into a ride and Millar’s response; “Do you know its bloody Christmas?”

When anyone asked me if Lance was really too good to be true my response was always went something like, wherever he is if its daylight he’s riding his bike. That’s what it takes to be consistently better than anyone else in a sport where the engine doesn’t always work quite the same and often not as well as desired. It’s humbling but in Lance’s case he gets through those moments with almost nobody the wiser.

Without Lance will the TDF ever again have the same presence in the United States? My bet is no and I’m giving odds. Cycling was described this morning on ESPN as an obscure European sport prior to Lance. The TDF and the other Grand Tours, Italy’s Giro and Spain’s Vuelta are the products of a different culture and will remain obscure here no matter how many Americans do well.

In Europe riders come from the fields and factories. It’s populated by strong farm boys and working class young men looking for a way up. They’re prizefighters on wheels. For them it’s not exactly a healthy sport. They have to succeed and do what it takes. Their passionate fans are also from the hoi polloi and along for the ride living the dream vicariously.

In this country it’s college kids looking for a fun and alternative way to make a living. When it doesn’t work they have something else of substance to fall back on. Most that remain here to race end up as bicycle industry executives. The ones that go abroad become virtual Europeans living where they ply this trade and those that are successful become one with the culture.

Five Americans finished in the top 20 and none of them other than Lance are known to anyone here but the truest of aficionados. For the record, Levi Leipheimer finished 6th, Floyd Landis 9th, George Hincapie, 14th and Bobby Julich, 17th. The other 3 Americans in the race, Chris Horner, Fred Rodriguez and Guido Trenti finished 33rd, 132nd and 139th respectively. That’s a remarkable showing but these guys won’t race here as there’s little money and even less recognition.

Until we do something on the same grand scale as a TDF on our shores and capture the public’s imagination, this joy ride is over. That’s never going to happen as the United States version of this sport is so far underground that it’ll never dig itself out. Anyone ever heard of the Tour of Georgia? It’s a well financed, well run stage race that Lance won two years ago and raced this past year to get ready for the TDF. It got no national coverage and very little outside the peach state. Even Lance couldn’t make a difference.

I want to thank everyone who has read this series that started out as emails to a few friends who were asking me to explain what really goes on. For the most part I’m satisfied with its clarity although an editor would have been helpful with some of the more obscure ramblings. There are also a few interpretations that may be a bit harsh, unfair or just plain wrong. But all things equal it was a workmanlike effort that I hope brought a new level of understanding of what goes on in this great sport and outstanding event.

Okay its withdrawal time. I’m going for long morning bike rides now that OLN is showing reruns of Survivor. Three hours and 50 or so miles is long for me and about the most I care to do these days. As a joke I bought a polka dot jersey as my climbing is sketchy. In my case every hill’s a mini-mountain and maybe this will be the inspiration to get over the hard spots. There’s always hope.

 David Balkin
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